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Album of the Week: Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney triumphs with 'Magic Sign'

Martin Courtney - 'Magic Sign'

Martin Courtney, frontman of indie rock heroes Real Estate, has dropped his second full-length solo album, the utterly heartwarming Magic Sign. Out now via indie powerhouse Domino, the album is much of what we’d expect from Courtney. Still, across it, he develops his craft taking it to new heights, making it more cerebral and mature than his 2015 debut Many Moons or his work in Real Estate. The dulcet tones he has consistently proven himself adept at creating are akin to a sonic comfort blanket, and all I can say is that I hope it’s not seven years until his next one. 

Interestingly, Courtney retains that unmistakably heady vibe that makes his work in Real Estate so noteworthy. However, on Magic Sign, the sense of nostalgia is so palpable that, like Courtney, you find yourself floating down memory lane, thinking of the sun bouncing off the lush flora as you glide down a country lane as a teenager on a warm day. 

The album kicks off perfectly with the uber-heady ‘Corncob‘, which comes with an earworm of a riff, and one of Courtney’s best vocal performances to date. Augmented by a retro-sounding synthesiser line, and some Byrds-esque slide guitar, you’re instantly whisked into a world of Martin Courtney’s complete sincerity. Think: Real Estate, just more personal.

Of the track, Courtney explained: The lyrics are about a specific time, the end of youth, pre-adulthood, scummy kid hanging around your hometown a little too long, smoking weed and driving around the surrounding area with your friends to get as completely lost as possible. Eventually getting home using these little green signs that are posted throughout the NJ suburbs telling you which way to go to reach different towns. We called them magic signs.

He continued: “You do this enough times and it eventually gets harder and harder to get lost. A song about pushing the boundaries of where you grew up until you exhaust the mystery and hit a different kind of boundary. A song about aimless kids looking for direction.”

Now a married and a father, residing in the trendy city of Beacon, New York, Courtney wrote Magic Sign as an ode to those exciting yet scary days when you leave your childhood behind forever, and jump into the great unknown that is adulthood. He’s now far away from those days of getting lost with his friends, but that does not mean he’s forgotten it, but quite the opposite, and this is clear across the record. 

The album was written and recorded over 2020 and 2021 late in the evening when Courtney’s children were asleep and his wife worked night shifts at the hospital, a great role reversal to the days when he was on tour with Real Estate and she stayed at home with the children. This hasn’t phased him, though, and the optimism he specifically wanted the album to espouse for the post-pandemic world is best reflected in the chorus of the second track ‘Outcome’, “We’ll be alright”, he sings repeatedly.

Another highlight is ‘Sailboat’, which is more energetic than much of the album, and bears many similarities to Real Estate, featuring a cacophony of guitars and another incredibly catchy vocal performance. Courtney seems to accept where he is in life and displays the contentment that we all seek to find at some point, “Have to say / Can′t ask for more / I guess I′m doing alright”. It’s not boastful, but thankful. He looks at the great journey that’s been his life and career, so many years after those halcyon days getting lost in the car with friends, and breathes a sigh of relief that it’s gone better than anyone could have expected.

A personal favourite is track eight, ‘Mulch’. A textured instrumental featuring effects-laden guitars, and some emotive bass work, it stands out as a highlight in the album. Instead of evoking nostalgia with his vocal performance and lyrics, this time Courtney lets the music do the talking. There are flecks of Sweet Trip and Air here, showing just how heavy the dose of sentimentality the track carries is. 

I’d love to hear Courtney do more of this kind of thing, as he’s very adept at it, and it’s something different for him. Following this, the languid yet touching ending of the next track ‘Terrestrial’ also builds on this sense that Martin Courtney is developing as an artist and that his creative palette is expanding in the best of ways.

Album closer ‘Exit Music’, is also one of the stand-out moments. Whether it be the emotionally stirring music or lyrics such as “No, we’re not as young as we both were, but we both know we’ve still got time, for sure”, Courtney wraps up this concise body of work perfectly, by explicitly putting to bed the key themes that underpin it. It’s another cut that’ll be stuck in your head, meaning that you just have to play it again and again, but you should welcome the opportunity to be rapt by such sharp musicianship.

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